A Tale of Two Cultures: How to Ensure Successful Change

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Several years ago, two independent organizations set off on journeys to transform their cultures. Both organizations wanted to move from environments that valued protecting the status quo and were resistant to change to cultures in which change was rapid, structured, and pervasive.

They both got off to a good start by clearly identifying their organizational philosophy. An identical set of tools was identified by both organizations to support their journeys.

As both organizations embarked from this common starting point, their paths began to diverge. In one organization, the philosophy began to take root, the tools were used consistently throughout the organization, and the culture continued to mature. Employees at all levels of the organization bought into the new ideas and their teams began to thrive.

In the second organization, changes in the culture were much less widespread. Individual pockets embraced the new ideas, but the results were not sustained. Years after their journey began, the culture was not significantly different from where it started.

So, what was the difference?

If you have been reading the last few posts, you can guess that the missing ingredient was the proper leadership behaviors to support the new culture.

“Do what I say, not what I do.”

Whether it is spoken or not, this is a message that is repeated on a regular basis in many organizations. Much of the leadership development material available today focuses on the importance of vision and strategy. If leaders have a compelling vision, an intelligent strategy, and communicate them well, good results should follow. As a leader, if I could only come up with a creative new vision for my team, develop the perfect change management plan, and communicate it like a TED Talk speaker, all my problems would be solved.

While communicating a clear and compelling vision and strategy for your organization is important, that alone will not result in success. As Bill Hybels likes to say, “Vision leaks.” Just because you were able to align your team at one point in time, does not mean it will stay that way. Many times, the effects of your words won’t survive the next few minutes. When life crashes back in and your team has to deal with the issues facing them right now, it is easy to slip back into old habits and forget the vision we are pursuing.

The temptation when the initial burst of momentum wanes, is to reinforce it with more words. More speeches. More training sessions. Flashy posters with catchy slogans. What is typically forgotten is the power of leadership actions. When team members see leaders living out the vision on a regular basis, backing up their words with actions, and reinforcing the desired culture changes, that leaves a much more lasting impression.

“As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow.” – Dr. Henry Cloud

As noted by Dr. Henry Cloud in his book, Boundaries for Leaders, the leadership behaviors that you choose to exhibit will either create or allow certain things to exist in your organization. In order to shape the future of your organization, you must take action to create and reinforce what you desire and to discourage what you want to eliminate.

In both cases, action is required.

If leaders choose not to take action, or fail to understand the impact of their behaviors, the organization will steer itself. Most times, this means that inertia takes over and the status quo is maintained. This is especially true for attempted culture changes.

“The failure of most Lean initiatives can be pinned on a failure to change leadership practices.” – David Mann

Leadership Behaviors Make the Difference

The difference between the two organizations described above is in the behaviors exhibited by the leadership of each organization. In the successful organization, the desired culture was created and supported through the actions of the leaders. They took an active role in creating the new habits and thought patterns necessary for the culture to stick.

The second organization had a less engaged leadership team that was content to let the organization lead itself. They were more likely to delegate change management activities and allowed many of the desired changes to be viewed as optional. As a result, the status quo culture continued to dominate and no significant progress was achieved.

While situations and specifics differ across organizations, certain principles still apply to any organization attempting to improve their culture. Future posts will be focused on identifying the leadership behaviors that support the creation of a culture of continuous improvement.

Have you had any particularly positive or negative experiences with organizational change? What leadership behaviors helped or hurt the effort? Let me know in the comments.

  • This my sweet spot. I love Hybels and Mr. Cloud. I am a fan of Willow Creek leadership conferences as you might guess. Recently I posted on Deming’s Christianity and that piece my speak to you. I’ve drafted a new post for a guest blog on LinkedIn’s LeanLab which will be the first in a series on five points critical to lead continuous improvement efforts successfully. It is all about culture and leadership. I will be posting it here in a day or two.

    If you do happen to read my blog you will notice I write a great deal about the role of culture in our lives.

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